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Hiding Behind the Numbers

by Glenn Pasanen, Mar 20, 2006
 

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New Yorkers recently learned that the syphilis infection rate is down nine percent in the city, while the cost of asphalt is up $6.82 a ton. It takes 2.4 minutes less now than it used to for the average person to get help on the phone for a parking ticket. The Staten Island Ferry is increasingly late.

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They learned all this from newspaper reports in the Staten Island Advance and the New York Times about a document called the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.

But what New Yorkers did not learn is that it costs $278 million more a year to dispose of the city’s garbage because the Fresh Kills landfill closed – bolstering the argument by critics who questioned the wisdom of closing it in the first place.

They also did not learn why it is taking longer for the fire department to respond to fires, why more people are dying in fires, or how the mayor plans to address the problem.

And they did not learn why the police department is spending more money (nearly $4 billion a year) and paying more in overtime ($400 million a year) even though there are fewer police officers on the force.

The mayor's management report is supposed to be one of the central ways to measure the performance of city government. And, by law, the report is supposed to be a tool to help lawmakers decide how to spend the city’s $50 billion annual budget.

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been praised for bringing new technologies and a business-like approach to city government, his administration is particularly stingy when it comes to sharing vital information with the public, and his approach to the mayor's management report is a prime example.

For all of the numbers and data that do come out of the mayor’s office, much of the most important information is not available, making it difficult for New Yorkers to assess how well the government is doing its job, and the direction it is setting for the future.

MEASURING THE CITY

Since 1977, the mayor has been required by the City Charter to issue two reports each year designed to measure how responsive city government is to the people it serves:

• The Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report (released in February) evaluates each city agency’s performance over the first four months of the fiscal year and presents goals for the future.

• The Mayor’s Management Report (issued in September) examines how each agency actually performed over the fiscal year.

Each mayor has used these reports in differing ways.



A new approach to government accountability -- officially called "performance assessment" but more colloquially, compstatmania -- compiles, analyzes and interprets statistics in order to spot trends, gaps and overlaps in city services. It's not magic -- it's hard work, and follow-up. In this series, Gotham Gazette looks at this approach to improving city services.

Ed Koch used it as a kind of report card, issuing “C’s” to commissioners that he did not think measured up. David Dinkins painted a picture of New York City's growing social problems in an effort to win state and federal aid. Rudolph Giuliani made a grand show of his presentations, describing with dozens of graphs and charts how the city had become a better place under his leadership.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, by contrast, has trimmed the report to about a third of its previous size, put information online rather than in a large print book, and spends little effort on drawing attention to it.

In February, when he released his most recent Preliminary Management Report -– which provides information from July to October of 2005 -- Mayor Bloomberg said that his administration has an “excellent record of achievement” and “continued strong performance in the delivery of city services.”

In other words, he highlighted the good news and downplayed the bad news.

The good news in the report is that:

•The number of murders is the lowest since 1963
• Felony crimes are down 4 percent
• The average police response time is six seconds faster
• 93 percent of city streets are “acceptably clean”
• The number of pothole repairs increased by 5 percent
• 97 percent of troublesome trees were removed in 30 days
• New cases of childhood lead poisoning declined by 9 percent
• And the number of children in foster care is at the lowest point since 1987.

The bad news is that:

• Only 53 percent of high school students graduate in four years
• The average fire department response time is 14 seconds slower
• 22 people died in fires, eight more than the same period last year
• 54 people died in traffic accident, six more than in the same period last year
• It took more than 6 hours on average to respond to a broken elevator complaint in public housing, 1 hour more than last year
• The Staten Island Ferry is slower
•And lawsuits against the city are up.

One of the most important statistics, Bloomberg said, is that citizens have unprecedented access to government through the 311-call line, which is being used by more New Yorkers every month. During the four months time examined by the report, the city received 4.2 million calls, three quarters of which were answered in 30 seconds or less.

While the 311 data is a potentially valuable source of information on city services, the Bloomberg administration fails to share the information with other elected officials, the City Council, or local community boards, which are charged with monitoring the well-being of their particular neighborhoods.

Overall, the Bloomberg administration has cut agency budget and performance data to the bone, arguing that less is better. Sometimes less is simply a lot less.

USEFUL INFORMATION OR OUTDATED EXERCISE?

So what are average New Yorkers to make of all of this data? And is it an accurate and helpful snapshot of the city government?

In the past, Mayor Bloomberg has argued that the report is not very useful.

In 2003, he even asked his charter revision commission to look into whether or not it should be eliminated. After a series of hearings, the mayoral commission came to the conclusion that the Preliminary Management Report is:

• Outdated and rooted in “mid-1970s thinking”
• Not an effective means of assessing or improving performance
• And a waste of money.

The commission placed an initiative on the ballot to eliminate it.

Opponents of the plan to kill the report, like the New York City Council, argued that it was one of the few ways to hold city agencies accountable.

On Election Day, voters rejected the measure -– and so Mayor Bloomberg continues to issue the report begrudgingly.

“Although at one time the city was a trailblazer in performance reporting,” a recent report from the Independent Budget Office states, “the lack of linkage between performance data reported in the [preliminary mayor's management report] and elsewhere, and clear spending information, makes it difficult for citizens, elected officials, and even agency mangers to know what they are getting for their money and to evaluate alternatives.”

CRITIQUING THE MAYOR’S NUMBERS

There are a number of problems with the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report in its current form.

1. Missing Numbers – Millions for Garbage

One problem of the report is that it does not break down budget figures to show how each agency spends its money.

For example, the Department of Education section reports that between July and October of 2005 the agency spent $4.3 billion on education, about $422 million more than the same time last year. Overtime costs are also up from $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion for the same period.

But the report makes no effort to explain how the money is being spent, why overtime costs have increased, or if there are plans to spend more or less over the rest of the fiscal year.

In other places, the mayor’s report simply omits some crucial financial information.

For example, in the current report the Department of Sanitation section does not say that roughly 25 percent of the sanitation budget goes to contractors since the closing of the Fresh Kills landfill by the Giuliani administration. According to the Independent Budget Office’s analysis, $278 million goes to seven private vendors through waste-export contracts that move the waste out of town.

The administration does not provide this information because the money is paid to private contractors – and that kind of information is reported in another document called “Agency Procurement” that comes out once a year.

The mayor’s report also does not say a word about the administration’s long-term plans to deal with the rising costs of the current waste disposal system even though the mayor and City Council are supposed to agree to such a plan this summer and even though the charter mandates that each agency present goals for the next year.

2. Confusing Measurements – Graduation Rates

In other area’s, the administration presents a dizzying array of categories of measurement – or “indicators” - that obscure what is really happening.

For example, the Department of Education reports that only 53.2 percent of high school students graduate in four years, which is down from 54.3 percent the year before. The number of students that graduate in seven years (67.6 percent) is also down from the previous year.

But this year, the Department of Education has now added a third category: “Students Graduating High School Within 4 years OR Still Enrolled in School for a Fifth Year.”

By combining two groups of students into one category, the administration can claim that 84.8 percent of students are “on track” to graduate or earn their Regent’s diploma.

“This indicates that more students are opting to stay in school at least an additional year to work towards graduation,” the report states.

Some experts disagree.

“This misinformation is devastating,” writes Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard Law School in an article for Gotham Gazette. “How can we know if we are doing better if we do not get an accurate reading of where the issues lies? It also affects where resources are allocated. We are not going to spend enough if our focus on the problem isn’t sharp, and we can’t see what’s really going on.”

3. Few Answers – Unexplained Fire Deaths

The Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report also offers few explanations for why certain things may occur.

For example, 22 people died in fires between July and October, eight more than in the same time last year. The fire department’s response time is also 14 seconds slower; it takes an average of 4 minutes and 37 seconds for the department to get to a scene.

The mayor said the response time was due in part to an increase in house fires. And the report states only that the department “has taken steps to reduce the key components of response time.”

The information raises more questions than it answers.

What has led to the increase in response times? Were the deaths concentrated in specific boroughs or neighborhoods? Are slower response time linked to the six firehouses that the Mayor Bloomberg closed in 2003? Does new fire equipment that needs to be purchased? Does the department need to hire more firefighters?

In previous reports, at least the administration attempted to answer some of these questions.

“There used to be footnotes that offered explanation of why an indicator may have gone up or down,” said Preston Niblack of the Independent Budget Office. “We lost some of that when it was reorganized [under Bloomberg].”

A NEW APPROACH

Instead of scrapping the report or continuing the annual exercise in its current form, some experts are pointing to ways that the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report can be made into a useful tool.

One idea is to return to one of the original goals of the report, which was to link the data from each agency to help make decisions about how to allocate funds. The Independent Budget Office recently issued a budget analysis that tries to create more clear connections between how the city spends money and the results that it gets in return.

For example, in the Independent Budget Office’s report on the Department of Health, one can see that the mayoral administration has spent more money for the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, an increase from $32.1 million in 2005 to $43.5 million in 2006. And in turn, the number of cases of tuberculosis is down (from 124,695 in 2005 to 122,239 in 2006), and the Department of Health is treating a higher percentage of the confirmed cases in the city.

While it is tricky to draw clear connections between the amount of money the city government spends on a particular effort and the results, the approach can be a productive look further into what government is – or is not – doing well.

“You have to be careful and dig deeper before you make conclusions,” said Niblack. “But it should help people to start asking the right questions.”

The Independent Budget Office has also shown just what can be done to create clear, accountable budgeting, using the city’s own data.

Another suggestion is to require the administration to conduct “citizen satisfaction surveys” as part of the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report. These surveys, which could track different responses by age, race, gender, and other socio-economic categories, could help bring a more customer service-oriented approach to city government. Last year, City Council considered legislation that would institute this change – and is likely to revisit the issue again in the future.

A third suggestion – which has been adopted by other cities and states - is to combine the two management reports with the mayor’s budget proposal into one document that would clearly lay out the mayor’s financial requests for each agency in terms of past and current performance and future goals.

This would allow the City Council, which is charged with holding public hearings on the budget, to monitor more carefully how taxpayer dollars are being spent.

"The Charter clearly intends the [preliminary mayor's management report] to relate performance measures to proposed budget appropriations so that the council… can consider what agencies have accomplished or produced with the resources allocated, and the effect of budget proposals, during the budget process,” a City Council report on the issue concluded. “Otherwise it falls far short of achieving its intended purpose.”

Mayor Bloomberg could break down agency budget information by program and provides sufficient new performance data that would enable an analyst -- or any interested New Yorker-- to measure results. Until that happens, this administration remains a $50 billion operation apparently unwilling to address management accountability.

RELATED ARTICLES:

Mayor’s Management Report for 2005: Thinner, Less Useful (October 2005)

The Mayor’s Management Report Skimps On Information About Education And Everything Else (October 2004)

Shrinking Accountability: Proposed Changes To The Mayor's Management Report (October 2003)

Editing Out the Facts (October 2002)

Guide To The Mayor's Management Report (October 2002)

Glenn Pasanen, who teaches political science at Lehman College, has been in charge of Gotham Gazette's finance topic page since 2001.  


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